Session One: The Dark Call of Herumor

6AC4E9E8-E7CC-4F7C-A9FA-973E06E456CBOverall, I think session one was a success. My four players chose the following characters: Sinda Elf Mage (named Ioreth), Hobbit Scout (named Edmund), Dunadan Warrior (named Daramir), and Wose Ranger (as yet unnamed).

Anyone reading my blog should know the starting situation: in the village of Pen-arduin in suburban Minas Tirith the PCs have learned, one way or another, that that very evening they are going to hear “The Call.” A person dressed all in black is going to come to whatever door they happen to be near and invite them into the hills of Emyn Arnen for a secret tryst.

The scene opens with my PCs sitting by the fire — which seems to grow cheerier and livelier as the evening darkens outside — in the common room of The Merchant’s Scythe. For a moment there I thought the scenario I had planned might go terribly awry. This is because, obviously, none of the PCs were keen to don the black robes that seemed conveniently set out for them beside the door and join a dark pilgrimage to a meeting, even if doing so would mean finding out information about a growing cult that might be a threat to King Eldarion in Minas Tirith. The GM never wants to lead the players, but, after someone said, “Well, if we don’t go, there is no adventure,” I had to resist the urge to say, “Well, you don’t have to do exactly what they want you to do. You could track the pilgrimage at a distance. You could wait till tomorrow and explore the countryside. You could go straight to Minas Tirith with this information.”

Instead, at this point, I think I gave my thoughts on the experience point aspect of the Rolemaster system, which rewards characters for doing things, for doing almost anything. In this game, I explained, if you want to advance your character, you have to act. There is, of course, through this avenue, threat to your character, but you never will advance otherwise. In Rolemaster, every character gains a level after 10,000 xp. In original Dungeons & Dragons different classes advance at different xp totals. Most house rules for D&D divide all xp after a session and share it out equally to the players. In Rolemaster, advancement can be wildly various. For example, after this first session, my most active player earned more than 2,000 xp; my most inactive gained merely 45 xp.

Well, my PCs donned the cloaks and joined a group of about forty villagers for a four-mile walk through a cold, moonlit night into the hills. I described a tunnel in one hill that opened into a narrow gorge. Old, decaying wooden structures were evidence that this once had been a fort or outpost of some kind. Rough stairs of stone climbed one hill flank about fifty feet before crossing to a cave opening in another hill. The PCs filed with the villagers through here, passed a guard who nodded indifferently at them. They proceeded down a 10’ by 20’ chamber (with two murder holes and a raised portcullis above) into a wide chamber.

In this cavern, by the sullen black light of a hooded lantern near the far end, the PCs with night vision (the Elf and Wose) descried chambers or tunnels leading to the northwest and northeast, as well as stairs leading up from the guard (who had followed them in) near a lever at the wall. These stairs presumably ascended to a chamber above containing the murder holes and mechanism for the portcullis. The rest of the characters could see nothing but the glow of the hooded lantern and had to bumble about and jostle the crowding villagers, many of whom made frightened breaths and utterances.

The guard pulled the lever at the wall. The portcullis dropped with a clang, hemming everyone inside. From the far end of the chamber two black-robed figures emerged from behind heavy black curtains. One held an urn-like object in his hands. This figure twisted some bands around it, emitting a strange, musical, whining sound. An undulating black shape rose from within the urn. The snake writhed.

At this point the villagers began to come forward, one by one, to within the dull gleam of the lamp, pledging themselves to “The Call.” I swear to the Dark Tree to heed the Call each and every time it sounds. The cultists vowed this oath with wrists exposed. The head of the snake hovered over the wrists, dripping venom onto the flesh, where it hissed and burned and left scarred marks resembling snakebites. The idea was, if the snake were to detect any hint of untruth in the speaking of this pledge, it would sink its fangs, injecting its venom, and the person would die outright.

What did the PCs do? Well, most of them backed up, with most of the near-frightened villagers, against the walls nearest the chamber through which they had entered. Some PCs whispered to each other that they must go up the stairs and see about raising the portcullis. The Hobbit did precisely this. The Wose allowed himself to be moved forward, with others, into the initiation. Just when the PCs began to wonder if there was no real threat from the snake — for all the villagers were getting through the initiation successfully — I had a frightened old man right in front of the Wose die for evidently having given an untruth: he died of snake venom.

The Wose began to explain that his being there was a mistake and that he wanted to be permitted to go. In the machine room, the Hobbit entered into combat with a guard whom he had found up there, the guard not believing that the Hobbit was a frightened and lost child. Daramir, the Dúnedain warrior, stepped forward, throwing back his cowl, and confronted the black cloaked cult leader.

And Ioreth, the Elf Mage, cast Vibration on the urn.

The vessel shattered. The large black snake fell to the chamber floor, among the shards, lashing about. The villagers panicked and pressed back against the walls, trying to shove through the chamber tunnel to the portcullis. The two black cloaked figures fled back through the heavy curtain. Daramir strode forward, pushing the curtain aside. The curtain was double hung, large, heavy, weighted with metal rings. On the other side were flaming oil lamps, a bowl of rich tobacco, a hookah, narcotic smoke and incense in the air, a number of pitched tents, and some camp beds. Also, were two Haradrim Rangers approaching Daramir with drawn scimitars. Daramir stepped into the room, letting the curtain fall behind him, and engaged the Haradrim in battle.

Meanwhile, in the room behind him, Ioreth leapt up the stairs to help Edmund the Hobbit in his battle with the guard there. An arrow from Ioreth’s bow passed through the guard’s ears, killing him instantly. After this, Edmund and Ioreth both successfully raised the portcullis and headed back down the stairs, where Edmund removed the hood from the lamp and Ioreth, learning that Daramir was beyond the curtain, rushed to his aid. The Wose was searching the floor, unsuccessfully, for the black snake. The serpent appeared to have slithered into the crowd on one side of the room, for a few black-cloaked figures fell there, evidently victims of snakebite.

In the other room, while one of the black cloaked figures prepared a spell, Daramir fought one against two. He delivered a critical on his first target, hitting the man’s weapon arm, paralyzing it and sending the scimitar clattering. This man also lost a lot of blood and was bleeding, so he effectively was out of the fight. Daramir’s second target was more difficult to hit, since it didn’t wear any armor, and Daramir’s chain armor protected him, for the most part, from critical strikes. But soon two leg wounds were bleeding profusely. The magic-user released his spell. It evidently was designed to make Daramir sleepy, but Daramir shook it off.

So this is what Ioreth saw when she stepped past the curtain. She fired an arrow. This missed the Haradan Ranger, so he managed to drop Daramir before attempting to flee, with the mage, to a shut wooden door in a far corner of the room. The acolyte who had been holding the snake urn must have gone into this farther room, and he evidently was too craven to open the door for his companions. Arrows from Ioreth and Edmund (who also now entered the room) dispatched the two Haradrim who desperately were trying to get through the door. This pretty much wrapped up the session. Ioreth and Edmund bound up Daramir’s wounds, while the Wose traded a few blows with the last living guard in the room beyond before allowing the man to flee with the rest of the villagers.

As far as loot, the PCs found a number of sacks of what I would describe as “hacksilver” — the equivalent of tin pieces, some of copper pieces. They also found a locked box of fifty gold pieces. The key to the box was around the neck of the slain mage. They gathered all this and their friend Daramir and headed back to Pen-arduin, to The Merchant’s Scythe. They asked Tiviel, their host, about healing for their friend. No healers, per se, but there is someone who makes potions.

Table Talk

Most of my players seemed happy enough with the game system. One in particular (the Elf Mage, and the one who consequently gained the most experience points) deep-dived into it. Daramir roleplayed wonderfully as a Dúnadan hero. My Hobbit Scout (as his player has demonstrated in other games) really gets into the information gathering, and established early that this person asking for “The Call” is Herumor, which is the name of a Black Numenorean who became a king of some Haradrim in league with Sauron at the end of the Second Age. With a super successful Static Maneuver, the Elf was able to explain that during the War of the Ring in the Third Age, four “arch-lichs” were in power in the south, and three of these have sometimes been identified as Herumor, Fuinur and Ardana. The Hobbit, conducting research, even made contact with Borlas, a Dunadan sage living in Pen-arduin.

The purpose of the cult is to prepare the Gondorion Dúnedain to dissolve into the Numenorean dynasty, in the south, who is going to come as a great dark wave and reestablish the sorcerous supremacy of the old, Sauron-counseled Numenoreans.

Rolemaster is sometimes derided as “chartmaster” or “character gen,” and these concepts again came up as my players looked at their character sheets and paged through the MERP rulebook. At the same time, one player expressed appreciation for how thin the rulebook is, and I explained that the game is “all in the tables.” Overall, MERP is an example of the increasing complexity of “generation 2” games immediately following D&D, but really no more complex than, say, Yggdrasill. Certainly less complex than Pathfinder. In my own view, it’s even less complex than Fantasy Flight’s Edge of Empire and certainly easier than Modiphius’s Conan 2d20. But I’ve been playing MERP longer. As I have said elsewhere, it’s my first roleplaying game. It’s how I learned to play.

As far as character generation for MERP, I said repeatedly that my gamers might try making their own characters, especially if any of their characters are slain during gameplay.

Time to start dreaming for Session Two.


Preparing for Adventures in Middle-Earth

560CC18F-3B2E-44D0-934B-DBC533D6CF0CI appear to have received my Christmas wish and am scheduled to run a MERP (Middle-Earth Role Playing) adventure on New Year’s Day! I have been diligently preparing, and I thought that the player’s accessory I devised might be of interest to more than just my players. This is because it shows a little of what I intend to do with MERP. It also delivers some of my thoughts on the game system and what it means in terms of tactical play and the context of gaming in Middle-Earth.


It is the Fourth Age of Middle-Earth, one hundred years after the passing of Elessar (1641 F.A., to be precise), Ringbearer’s Companion, Warden of the North. Now Elessar’s son Eldarion is King of Gondor, reigning from Minas Tirith.

The Peoples of Middle-Earth

Dwarves have retreated deep within their mountain fastnesses. They are more reserved and belligerent than ever. Their hues have taken on a rock-like, dusky temperament. Their beards bristle like wire or sparkle like quartzite. They now are affected by sunlight much as Orcs are.

All the High Elves (Noldor) have departed for the Western Shores. The Sindar Elves (those who never dwelt in Aman) remain in secret redoubts, here and there, reticent to leave the only land they ever have known. Along with the Silvan Elves, who reside within the deepest forests, they are fading and diminishing, both in stature and in temperment. The Silvan Elves, in particular, have become cruel and capricious in their intolerance for humans.

Hobbits populate the vast majority of Western Middle-Earth, over which they have unbroken jurisdiction, though the men of the South, in these later years since the expiration with the King’s Peace following Elessar’s passing, are pushing at their borders. Hobbits have grown larger over the generations and, in some cases, are hardly distinguishable from their Southern brethren.

All manner of Men flourish in the Fourth Age of Middle-Earth, though Woses have become increasingly rare, now that, in the years following King Elessar’s passing, they have been hunted almost to extinction.

Orcs and Trolls have become very rare, retreating, like the Dwarves, deep into the hidden places of the earth. Some Orcs, however, have begun to pass as normal men in some of the larger, more cosmopolitan populations. There also are rumors of great Orc migrations traveling by night, leaving their caves and fortresses around Mordor and the Misty Mountains and traveling, sometimes with the secret aid of evil Men, into the deserts of the Haradwaith.

Initial Location and Situation

Month: Hithui (Fall). Weather: Windy (normal rain). Location: Pen-arduin, banks of the Anduin, feet of the Emyn Arnen.

The PCs are inhabitants or vagabonds among the rural homes Pen-arduin, hill country southeast of Minas Tirith and along the banks of the Anduin. Over the last few days, the PCs have heard whispered mention of Herumor (see “The New Shadow” in The Peoples of Middle-Earth) and “the Call.” While gathering in the common room of The Merchant’s Scythe (Tiviel the “merchant’s” original scythe, with which he began his hay business, hangs rusting above the door), the PCs, one way or another, have been told that on this night someone all in black is going to come for them and invite them to a meeting. If they choose to accept “The Call,” they are to dress in black themselves and join this person and others on a pilgrimage into the hills, the Emyn Arnen.

The Player Characters

Dunadan Warrior. Long have you served in King Eldarion’s Royal Guard, but of late you have heard troubling rumors of a conspiracy undoubtedly led by the Fellowship of Blood. To ease your mind, you went on leave to visit family in the Emyn Arnen area, only to encounter the same sorts of rumors. Weapons: Broadsword, Short Bow (20); Armor: Shield, Chain; Items: Ring of Healing (1d10 4/day), 2 gp.

Sinda Elf Mage. You are a member of a dwindling species. Many of your kin have retreated deep into quiet contemplation within the forests of Middle-Earth, where it is said they become one with root and branch or dwindle into diminutive spirits. Others have set forth across the waters of Endor in search of new stimuli. You, on the banks of the Anduin, are contemplating doing exactly this, yourself. Weapons: Broadsword, Long Bow (20); Armor: None; Items: Ring of Invisibility (1/day), 2 gp.

Wose (Druadan) Ranger. For all you know you are the last of your kind. Recently you buried your mother and your father in a cave in Dunland before journeying to Minas Tirith, the center of civilization, seeking knowledge of your culture and, failing that, perhaps new purpose in life. Unsuccessful in your quest to learn of more of your kind, you nonetheless have befriended one or more of the other PCs. Weapons: Spear, Handaxe; Armor: Soft Leather, Shield; Items: Onyx stone of shade on a leather thong (3/day), 2 gp.

Dorwinadan Bard. Restless, always seeking adventure, you accompanied a merchant bearing Dorwinion wine to Minas Tirith. Once there, you decided you would stay awhile and perhaps see the ocean. It is for this reason that you are refreshing yourself at a common house on the banks of the Anduin. Weapons: Mace, Longbow (20); Armor: Shield; Items: Crystal of light mirage on a silver chain (2/day), pet weasel, 2 gp.

Urban Animist. Recently you have decided to set up shop and offer your services in Emyn Arnen, the suburbs of Minas Tirith. Weapons: Short Sword, Crossbow (20); Armor: Soft Leather; Items: Ring of Calm II (3/day), 2 gp.

Hobbit Scout. You believe you are of distant Brandybuck lineage and have traveled to Minas Tirith to learn more about the great Meriadoc’s last days. Your researches indicate that Merry might have stayed for a time in a cottage in Pen-arduin. You found no further leads, but you did find passable ale in The Merchant’s Scythe! Weapons: Short Bow (20), Sling (20); Armor: Shield; Items: +10 lockpick, 2 gp.

Comments on Game System

Some have criticized Middle-Earth Role Playing as not being a proper emulation of Tolkien’s ethos. The main criticism for this has been the observation that the game system used in MERP is Rolemaster, which is a fairly generic fantasy rpg ruleset more in common with Dungeons & Dragons than Tolkien’s specific vision. A secondary criticism might be that Iron Crown Enterprises introduced non-canonical campaign material. In my own view, both of these features are benefits to gamers who would like to explore experiences of their own devising within the winds of Tolkien’s inspiration.

Many believe that MERP is “not Tolkien enough” since almost any character has the potential of, at some point, gaining magical ability. In addition to this, many of the higher level spells are “spectacular” along the lines of D&D, not nuanced and innate like those of the Maiar or Elves in Tolkien’s work. If a character has any magical ability, then that character knows at least one Spell List, and this means that the character automatically will know more spells to cast from that list as that character ascends in profession levels. Characters have a better chance of successfully casting spells and spell effectiveness if they prepare them for a number of rounds before casting.

Part of the Rolemaster project was to develop a “realistic” or simulationist system for combat. As such, MERP can be pretty lethal. This is because of the numerous Critical Hit Tables upon which even relatively unexceptional rolls might score. For some of these results, the only hope for survival or avoidance of maiming is to have suitable armor in the areas so struck: helm, leg or arm greaves. Be warned.

These critical hit tables often cause damage outside of hit point loss, and this is where Rolemaster introduces a feature that is serendipitously in line with Tolkien’s vision: herbs. MERP provides lists and prices of unique flora that can be used to treat bone, muscle, and circulatory damage.

Another feature of Rolemaster is its experience point system. Just about everything that a character does — or has done to oneself — is worthy of experience! Criticals scored, hits taken on self, enemies slain, ideas had, miles traveled. It seems like, in an attempt to distinguish itself from or comment on D&D, the only thing that doesn’t generate experience points in MERP, rules as written, is gold. In my game, though, it does! For every game session, I will have organized charts available so that players can keep track of all of their characters’ feats. This also will help keep track of damage and conditions (since, as noted, these, too, award experience points), though I, as the GM, will try to be keeping a record of this myself.

I hope that MERP proves to be an enjoyable experience for everyone, and I appreciate everyone willing to take time away from Yggdrasill to give this a go. As a demonstration of my gratitude, and in hopes of you experiencing a longer MERP campaign, I will be doubling all xp gained till Level 3. This reflects your commitment and investment in the Yggdrasill game as I ask you to patronize me in our exploration of Middle-Earth’s Fourth Age.


Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as Inspiration for Yggdrasill “Winter Nights” Gaming

136F0B9A-AEA2-4F0B-8C1B-63301801108CMy Yggdrasill campaign is underway again. It was interrupted by one session of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea and by one player on hiatus (during which we played Monolith’s Conan board game). As I suggested last post, I attempted to adapt and modify traditional OSR material from Frog God Games — to demoralizing effect. I learned that OSR material (for me) doesn’t “translate” all that well to the specific vibe Yggdrasill seeks to emulate and that I’m not all that good at running adventures that I haven’t written myself.

I actually was quite ambitious. I had sent out hooks that could have taken the PCs in two different directions. One would have made use of the “official campaign” beginning in the Yggdrasill core book. The other was stuff adapted from Frog God’s Stoneheart Valley — a direction I vastly preferred the PCs take, and they did. But from there it floundered. I was experiencing the age old difficulty with any roleplaying game: my players (obviously) wanted to be in charge of their own characters’ choices and determinations. But, at the same time, as players, they are eminently happier and more entertained if I shoehorn (railroad) them into an exciting adventure.

Therefore I determined to try something specifically episodic and of my own invention. I began an adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Yggdrasill.

It’s been going alright, I guess. My players talk about how much fun Beowulf was (though many experiences with rpgs become more entertaining through the recollections and retellings of past exploits). As a player pointed out to me, though, my work with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is more of an “inspiration” rather than an outright “adaptation.” Add to this that I’ve added “sandboxy” elements and it is indeed a different animal.

We are mastering the system, though. I have innovated “Viking band” mechanics and then discarded them (for now) as being too complicating. I have introduced “Luck points” that any of us have yet to use. Action was slowed by a few attempts, on my part, to have players specify what happened during “downtime” that promptly became the play session. It had become difficult to wedge at least one satisfying combat encounter into a night’s session, dealing with the age old paradox of characters, obviously, seeking resolutions to problems outside of physical conflict while the players hungered for some good ol’ hack and slash.

I’ve got my players in Alfheim, now, after what felt to me like some tedium. You need your players to do things on their own, and yet, given the structure of the adventure, obviously they will find their way to Alfland. If not, there would be no adventure. So we are there now. Our berserker got royally ripped up by an alf defending a bridge, and now they have retreated to heal their wounds, regain their furor, and (this time) probably attack the alf en masse. In knightly fashion, they had initially agreed to fight the alf one at a time. The berserker went first and got destroyed.

I’m also trying to make myself better at improv. I will try to remember to draw a rune in response to any unanticipated player question. I also intend to expedite future downtime by drawing one rune per PC and narrating from there. If this rune matches one of their Fate runes, the interpretation of downtime events should be particularly interesting.

Too Much Material for Just Twice a Month!

IMG_0049I offered four tables at Coulee Con, and three “fired” (as I learned one says about a game that has enough people show up to actually run). Attendance at my first two Swords & Wizardry games was pretty good. I especially enjoyed the second one. This probably was because, after running so much Yggdrasill in my home game, a first session had got me back into the rhythm of refereeing an OSR game. This also was because the second game was attended by two brand new players who seemed really receptive to the experience.

Yggdrasill went very well. Only one gamer showed, precisely. But I also count another attendee who arrived an hour late, just in time for the actual game. It had taken this long to get to the session because the early player was interested in simply hearing about the game system. The actual session, because of time, involved only the Grendel encounter. The players tried some innovative tactics. Not all of them worked. I had fun using Grendel to throw characters across the hall. The gamers enjoyed the system well enough that when the second player learned I was scheduled for more Swords & Wizardry the following day, he asked if I would run Yggdrasill instead!

Therefore I’m emboldened to offer a full schedule of Yggdrasill next year. I had offered Swords & Wizardry for the newbies and families, but with the exception of the couple that I already mentioned, those who played my Swords & Wizardry games were playing just because they were looking for Dungeons & Dragons. And so it was: nothing really new or interesting, just low-level characters encountering your usual orcs or goblins in a mini-dungeon. Let me re-approach my point: most of my gamers regularly played D&D. They were playing my game not for the experience of the system or for the particular adventure I was offering but because they were most interested in playing D&D at the moment, and, at a small con with a limited number of rpg offerings, I happened to be offering it then.

So I’m back from Coulee Con and intent in my purpose. It should be interesting to see what content I manage to generate over the upcoming year. As I’ve already said, I intend to run the Yggdrasill Official Campaign. But judging by my players’ gaming styles, it’s unlikely they’ll cleave that tightly to the “plan.” I also have amassed a wealth of Norse-themed gaming material over the years (and all sorts of gaming accessories not necessarily Norse-themed, as well, but more of that in a moment), both rpg systems and accessories and adventures. Being such a Swords & Wizardry supporter, I had purchased the big book The Northlands Saga Complete from the Frog God Games booth at Gamehole Con last year. I’ve been steadily reading through it. I likewise have The Nine Worlds Saga from Troll Lord Games, designed to be played with its Codex Nordica accessory to Norse-themed gaming with a traditional game set. I just read through “Beyond the Ice-Fall” from Raven God Games, an adventure I should be able to slip in just about anywhere, and there are two full scenarios that I need to read in Chaosium’s Mythic Iceland. I intend to read through and adapt all of this to Yggdrasill, and playing through it should be an epic undertaking spanning multiple years.

As readers have heard from me before, at the same time, though, I have all these other games and accessories. There are three, maybe four, game systems that I really would like time to explore. These are Yggdrasill (obviously), Modiphius’s Conan, The One Ring, and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea.

And here’s what else: I own SO MUCH material for high fantasy and OSR games, all of which should fit neatly into Hyperborea, that I would love, also, in addition to Yggdrasill and its “unity of Norse vision,” to run an epic OSR campaign as a huge sandbox containing all of my materials. Hyperborea could be a good campaign world, the chassis for all the other supplements.

And here’s a most ambitious idea: what if my Yggdrasill PCs undertake a long adventure in Alfheim? When they reenter Midgard, time naturally has sped far into the future (or am I getting that backwards?). Talanian’s world of Hyperborea is set in the far future. What if I ran a crazy OSR sandbox using the Yggdrasill game system? No one would know what to expect!

And if it’s going to take years to get through all my proper Norse material…

Yggdrasill Invades Keltia

KeltiaSometime ago I participated in a Bundle of Holding drive concerning Cubicle 7’s translated game products. I went in for the first tier alone, because the majority of the Bonus Collection contained the entirety of the Yggdrasill line which I already owned. I was interested in Keltia: The Chronicles of Arthur Pendraeg, however, because of an idea I had to run Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as a game. What I missed out on by avoiding the Bonus Collection was the only existing English-language supplement to Keltia, Avalon. For some reason, it wasn’t till recently when I sat down with Keltia and read it in its entirety.

Of immediate use to Yggdrasill gamers is what Keltia has to say about its relation to its progenitor. Keltia shares the Yggdrasill game system, with some modifications that it details in an appendix. But I sense that there might be even more changes than what are specified therein. The Yggdrasill player benefits from a close reading of the entire text, including the rules section. Perhaps because of the fresh format, rules seem clarified. And I believe that there are some additions (a bonus to damage from a head butt as given in the weapons chart, for example, or weather modifications on movement).

This might be an error, but I noticed there still are some copies for sale on Amazon. I’m testing the waters and fishing for one: I ordered a copy, just to have a second physical rules manual at the table. And it of course would be more thematically appropriate to have available to the group if I ever were to run that Gawain game. But it has been a few days now and the book has not shipped. I suspect that Amazon will learn that they need to update their files, that they might no longer have the authority to sell such a thing.

The campaign material is a pleasure to read, in tone and content reminding me very much of Stephen R. Lawhead’s Pendragon Cycle. As with the “nations” of Yggdrasill, the well-known knights and nobles of legend have been rearranged and occluded so that GMs and players should feel empowered to explore and create their own Arthurian canons. Granted, I would have found most of this entirely unnecessary if I hadn’t recently experienced myself using the campaign materials in Yggdrasill as background for even my Beowulf campaign! One would think Beowulf would provide all that is required. I guess it does, but I appreciated what the backdrop of Halfdan, Frodi and jarl Regin did as far as deepening the story–at least for campaign play.

As I might have mentioned in a previous post, my Yggdrasill players are interested in exploring the official campaign, and I’m willing to run this for them. However, as was pointed out in my favorite review, large portions of at least the introductory adventure seem really boring, particularly the second movement, which appears to be entirely subsumed in investigation and politicking that is unlikely to interest any player. A new experience for me will be the experience of adapting this material for use at my particular table.

If I anticipate the need to revise this Yggdrasill material, I expect it will be downright essential were I ever to run the introductory “adventure” as presented in Keltia. I imagine that the game designers test out their material on someone, and if the Keltia play test was well received, I would value the opportunity to get a sense of the culture of that gaming group. The reason is because the adventure appears to ignore many pieces of advice or guidelines that GMs have received over the years.

The pieces of advice that most prominently spring to mind are three: players tend to enjoy physical conflicts, ideally in the form of combats; players aren’t very good at internalizing or comprehending a large amount of information; and players need to be the heroes — or the main point — of the story or adventure. The problems with the Keltia scenario are 1. There are only two conflicts, maybe just one. There are some bandits that need to be chased away from a princess at the beginning of the adventure. And there are some guards or spies that perhaps must be engaged at the end of the adventure (ideally, though, the PCs and the one whom they have in their charge at that time should sneak by these people. 2. There is a lot of information in this adventure, and it’s difficult to determine how any of it really is relevant. The heart of the adventure is a council in which Arthur is proclaimed the new High King of Ynys Prydein. The adventure goes to great length to explain just where a multitude of noble characters are seated, who they are, to whom they are related, what their interests are, and just what their seating says about their power and positions. Exhausting! I’m not sure what player can comprehend it all — especially after getting through the already formidable obstacle of the Gaelic/Welsh names — much less care! To add to this, the adventure provides a chart of Perception STs and what PCs will recognize about the NPCs based on NPC reactions to a number of things that are said at the council. And this brings up a tangential and foregone objection: this scene is very much railroaded. The PCs aren’t at the council to do anything. They are there as spectators only. Arthur is going to be proclaimed High King, and some nobles are going to be angry about it. That’s it. 3. This third point has already been begun. The PCs are not the point of the adventure: Arthur is. The PCs have no further role other than to witness Arthur’s ascension to High King and then to protect him and smuggle him out of the Caer and away from his enemies. The adventure is open about how this is a “railroad” and that players must either “buy in” or be tricked into this scenario or that there is no adventure; the campaign is already over. This is at odds with the only way I know how to run a game: set up the scenario, the environment, the factors, the powers at play, and see what happens. Because, as many GMs other than me have said, you never can predict what a player will do.

So, even though I’m not going to be running this official Keltia adventure anytime soon, I am encountering similar formulations in the proposed Yggdrasill material. The experiment for me will be to adapt the “adventures” into “starting scenarios” and “see what happens.” Anyone familiar with the Yggdrasill official campaign might be interested in what I discover.

The Surprising Tenacity of Yggdrasill

Some time ago I wrote for Blackgate magazine that GMs must be very careful about what games they introduce to new rpg players, because (and I especially liked this image) players will chew into a system and live there like termites. I expressed this because of all the other games that I was buying and wanted to play while my players remained perfectly (and perhaps stubbornly) content with Yggdrasill. And lately I’ve come to wonder if I, too, need not run anything else for a long, long time.

I ran Swords & Wizardry for a few murderous sessions, then was perfectly happy to let a friend run an AD&D 1e game instead. I alternate, week by week, my Yggdrasill game with his. I belatedly helped Kickstart Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of and backed Jeffrey Talanian’s Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea (as of this date expected to ship in October). And, after reflecting on how deeply meaningful Tolkien has been for my entire life, and remembering how formative MERP was on my younger gaming self, I ordered the hardback of The One Ring. I’ve been reading reams of stuff that Modiphius has been loading into my backerkit during this First Wave of Conan merchandise, and slowly I have moved from anticipation for running the 2d20 system, from envy for those who are already playing it, to casual indifference as I turn, again and again, to this somewhat odd, now-out-of-print game called Yggdrasill.

I think I’ve determined three reasons why Yggdrasill just won’t let me go. The first is my players. They genuinely like the game. They also like making sums out of large numbers. They don’t mind mechanical wonkiness. Yggdrasill is not the cleanest, most streamlined game out there. Read this hilarious review about the mechanical imperfections (and ignore the bit about how the game ignores the historical, cultural aspersions cast on males who practice sorcery — it doesn’t!). What is described in this review is very close to the experience we have at the table. And we like it. I’ve started to bring cheap calculators to the table, scratch pads upon which to write every number we generate just in case we need it for a secondary action or to refer to how much we exceeded a success threshold. I now hand players glass beads to keep track of weapon and armour damage. We still don’t use combat Feats all that often. And yet I like it. And I still find the mechanics inspiring and creative enough that I continue to tinker with them. I continue to write new things for this rules set.

The things I like about the game aren’t radically different from many other systems. My players like the exploding dice. Other games, of course, use exploding dice. It’s perhaps not necessary to explain what we like about this feature: most probabilities can be anticipated, unless a die explodes, and especially when an exploding die explodes (and then even explodes again?). This allows a person of nearly every power level to sometimes, unexpectedly, land a particularly vicious blow or achieve a spectacular result.

Other mechanical features seem more nuanced. Let’s start with the Characteristics. We all know these. I think the six of them in D&D typically are called Attributes. It’s slightly interesting to compare how many Characteristics, Attributes, or whatever other synonym various games use to determine what these say about the “head space” or the priorities of the game designers. What qualities are left out, for example, or what qualities are included? What is the ordering of the qualities? I happened to notice that the ordering of Attributes in D&D changed from AD&D to 3rd ed, clearly a progression from the core stats of the Fighter, Magic-user, Cleric, Thief archetypes being listed first to the privileging of all stats related to the body and then all of those related to the mind or soul.

Yggdrasill makes use of nine stats! This is the largest number of core stats that I’ve seen in a game, and I’d be curious if there is any other game out there that uses this many or more. I must emphasize that I’m talking about “core stats” and not the various derived stats that many games use — and Yggdrasill uses a fair share of these, as well. Of course, the number nine in a Norse-themed setting is poetical, a powerful number that, at the very least, stands for the Nine Worlds clustered around the roots of the World Tree Yggdrasill, which is the title of the game, after all!

These nine stats also are conveniently organized into three macro-stats — Body, Mind, and Soul. It would be tedious, I suppose, for me to elaborate on how powerfully a game’s mechanics have spoken to my meditative life — I truly believe that my absorption with this system has caused me to pray and exercise more, because I realized that I was quite developed in the Mind but heroically lacking in the Body and in the Soul. But a more relatable observation is how versatile these nine Characteristics are in gameplay.

In OSR styles of play, a lot is supposed to be contingent not so much on what a PC is doing but on how that character is doing it. This allows the player to convince the GM to allow the resolution to occur or allow, at the very least, a bonus of some kind on a roll. The nine Characteristics in Yggdrasill provides players some guidance and inspiration, allows them to play to their characters’ strengths. As an example, a character might be searching for tracks in a forest glen. The character might use her Perception, obviously, or the character might use his Instinct (to become aware of her surroundings, to guess or “feel” where a person passed recently), or the character might use his Intelligence to deduct where the creature might have walked through the glade, ideally with some knowledge of the creature. Of course, Perception is the most applicable here, but this gives some versatility and depth to different kinds of characters and how they might do things. Even in combat the game makes use of Characteristics beyond the usual contenders of Strength and Agility. These approaches to combat provide further demonstrations of this kind of application.

The third reason that I keep coming back to this game is because of its content. I keep reading Viking Age literature, and it’s no surprise that this keeps me constantly in the spirit to run this game. When I was excited for Conan, I was reading a lot of Conan and found adventure-worthy content in nearly every thing I read, including non-Conan material! Now, as I finish The Longships and Gunnar’s Daughter and A Gathering of Ravens, I’m looking for passages that I can mechanize and drop into my campaign.

My Norse-related reading is not only novels and histories but other game systems and settings. Recently, finally, Chaosium’s Mythic Iceland reduced in price during a July sale on DriveThruRPG. Now I understand why it’s one of the more expensive supplements, and I’ve been having fun pondering what elements I can steal and adapt for Yggdrasill. I still have to give Sagas of the Icelanders (a PbtA game) a closer read, and Troll Lord publishes a fairly inexpensive adventure path to accompany its Codex Nordica that should make interesting reading as soon as I feel the spirit. Even reading Modiphius’s Conan the Barbarian got me energized for Yggdrasill — it was difficult to get excited about running Conan adventures set in the Hyborian North while I’m running essentially that already! With this wealth of material and inspiration, I should be gaming with Yggdrasill for a long, long time.

Beowulf Playtest Complete!

IMG_0037Well, I completed my playtest for the Beowulf game using the Yggdrasill system. A quick note: since Cubicle 7 has let go of the license on this game, and since the game now is officially out of print, I see the price of the hardcover has been gouged on Amazon from around $50 to $250. I hope those sellers don’t get what they’re asking! I hope that Le 7eme Cercle republishes the game, perhaps with a new translation, and that those who missed out on it this time around are able to enjoy yet a better edition. One unfortunate gamer reported on the Cubicle 7 forums that his/her Yggdrasill record in his/her DriveThruRPG wishlist suddenly vanished. Now this person would be willing to purchase the entire line if only given the chance. I myself have wished that I hadn’t bought the entire line at full price but had been lucky enough to find this game while the Humble Bundle drive was going on! Argh! Oh, well. I guess I was able to directly support the game while it lasted.

Not unexpectedly, the Beowulf playtest was a bit wonky, but overall I think it worked out alright. This “wonkiness” was the reason why I initially had given up using Yggdrasill to make a con game and instead had devised my own Old Norse Old School Roleplaying system. It was much easier to grasp the power structures of the simulation using the lingua franca of the gaming community. But as you might recall, being perfectly satisfied with a D&D game being run by a friend of mine, I didn’t want to run yet more D&D with my home group, so instead went back to Yggdrasill when it came time to retell Beowulf. (Aside: my group has interest in playing Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea when I get the hardcopy of the second edition expected to ship this October; perhaps that game is sufficiently different enough from D&D — at least in setting — to justify two of those games being run.)

In regards to the wonkiness of Yggdrasill, one of my players summed up the issues with Yggdrasill perfectly. At first glance, the core mechanic of the game is quite simple. Roll pools of d10s attributed to your Characteristics for any kind of skill test, add any relevant Skill if applicable, beat a Difficulty threshold. But, once you start manipulating this core mechanic in any appreciable way, as the game does, very quickly you are dealing with large numbers and math problems complex enough to slow down the simulation. Are you performing a Feat? Well, you have to take a negative modifier to your Test based on the level of the Feat — and, while you’re at it, are you sure the Feat’s effect is worth the penalty that otherwise might be just straight damage to your target resulting from an excess value required to make your test? And some Feats and specific attacks require you subtract or add your Characteristic value. And dice explode on tens, so sometimes the rolls are wildly (and lethally) successful, and sometimes they are pathetic. And sometimes, for some game applications, tens just don’t explode. And there are plenty of gaps and openings for interpretation for this rules set, either by design, by overlooked omission, or through ambiguities in the language translation to make this game (as I have described it in a different place) “old school” in flavor (as long as we focus on a definition of the old school that few groups of gamers played the same game the same way).

Anyway, thanks to this playtest I think I have the Beowulf game reduced to manageable parameters. Contrary to what I told Gaming and BS, I have generated pregens. The pregens might be a bit statistically powerful, whereas the characters in my homegame had a number of toys to aid them (i.e., buckets of healing unguents). When I initially drafted the adventure, I included a number of encounters and possibilities that simply have to be cut for a time allotment of 4-6 hours, and I believe this benefits the game, because it reduces the action and story down to (just about) the central elements in the poem. I think the session will be good fun, should anyone sign up, even if it might not make more game adherents–an ideal one-shot experience for a con. And potential consumers no longer are able to buy the game anyway (for anything less than $250, that is!).

Epilogue to a TPK: What Happens to the Hireling?

For the third time that night, still standing upright, Dollen jerked awake. The donkey again was stamping its hooves and emitting that low, unearthly whine. That sound made Dollen’s beard stand out like a weather rod. The night had grown yet colder, and now flurries were melting on Dollen’s cheeks. “There there,” the dwarf said, placing an attempt at a soothing hand on the donkey’s flank. “Your owners will be back soon, and then we’ll be out for a mite to drink.”

Yes, a drink. At this time on any other night Dollen would be in Rok’s Tavern hoping for beer charity from the more prosperous denizens of Black Rock. He had hoped tonight to be paying back his friends and making new ones with the fifteen gold this odd band of adventurers had promised him for one night’s service — yes, the onerous service of watching the cart and donkey. Cart Watcher, they had called him, and left him here with a new mace that they had purchased for no other reason than that he had said he wanted it and because he was expected to die while protecting the cart and donkey. But now the work wasn’t feeling as posh as it first had seemed. The valley below him was dark, so dark he believed he could see heat traces in whatever forest animals might now be hunting within those branches. It seemed unlikely, now, that the band would be making the trip back to Black Rock this night, once his employers came out of that hole.

Grunting, he went back into the old ruined Guild Hall, temporarily sheltered from the biting wind. If his employers’ absence kept up, he supposed, he should untether the animal and lead it in here. But he didn’t want to make too many decisions on his own. An odd group, they were. Scattering gold in their wakes as if they were kings. He stood at the top of the stairway again and peered down into its inky depths. Nothing. The pitch smell of his employers’ torches, by this time, had faded to the smell of a cold forge. He strained his ears. Did he hear something? Perhaps a distant cry? No, just the donkey again emitting its terror to the night. This was not how Dollen had expected to spend his night. Perhaps he should have been more specific in the terms of his agreement. It occurred to him now that he didn’t even have a contract.

He stepped back outside. “There now, Jasper. We’ll get ourselves out of this wind.” But the donkey couldn’t be settled. It seemed to want to bolt, and that would be bad with it still tethered to the cart.

The cart. He thought he heard a sound come from within it, something like the exhalation of great nostrils. They had seen a great cat earlier that day, during their climb. It made sense that cold wooden cart walls would occlude the heat signature from Dollen’s darkvision.

Poor Dollen. As his grip tightened on his brand new mace, glowing green eyes rose up from within the cart and looked down at him from behind a wide mouth of sharp, feline teeth. The donkey tried to run, the great cat leapt into the air.